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A Brilliant Afterlife Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Lawrence Sullivan

We don't know yet about life, how can we know about death?" So said Confucius (551-479 B.C.), a native of Shandong province in northeast China, where since the 1960s archaeologists have excavated the rich burials of dukes and princes from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). To enter the immortal afterlife with the trappings of earthly status and rank, Han nobles packed their tombs with models of their possessions, known as mingqi or "brilliant artifacts." The exhibition "Providing for the Afterlife: 'Brilliant Artifacts' from Shandong," on display at the China Institute in New York City through June 4, is an impressive collection that suggests the Han elite, like the ancient Egyptians, believed you really could take it with you.

On loan from municipal museums in Shandong, the objects are being shown in the U.S. for the first time. Many were discovered in excavations of the past six years. The signature piece is a terra-cotta white bird with a tripod ding ("spirit") vessel atop each wing, representing a celestial conveyance for the dead to the afterlife. (It's also featured on the cover of the fine catalog, which includes excavation information and photographs.) Five horses pulling a chariot, a long-sleeved musician striking a drum, and a luminous bronze blue bell are equally arresting. Archaeologically rare is a collection of figurines--a rooster, a dog, and a chef with his stove--coated with the distinctive green glaze used only for funerary objects. A jade mask from the tomb of Liu Kuan, a disgraced first-century B.C. ruler, testifies to his lower status, paling in comparison to the full jade suits buried with more revered leaders.

Though mostly devoted to Han burials, "Brilliant Artifacts" also includes a few archaeological finds from earlier eras that are historically important, including imperial edicts unifying the Chinese empire during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) found on a cast-bronze plaque and a ceramic measure, and texts imprinted on bamboo strips from The Art of War by Sunzi, China's greatest military strategist and another Shandong native. For China scholars, these texts are akin to original copies of the Bible. I was awed to see them.

"Brilliant Artifacts" was organized by curators from Princeton University Art Museum, where a companion show, "Recarving China's Past: Art, Archaeology, and Architecture of the Wu Family Shrines," is on display through June 26. The second-century A.D. Wu Kingdom was one of the last of the Han Dynasty.

Lawrence Sullivan is a professor of Asian and Chinese studies at Adelphi University.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America